At next week’s meeting in Seoul of the G20′s leaders, there will be no last rites – this hopelessly unwieldy exercise in global government wouldn’t recognise a corpse if stood before it in a coffin – but it seems clear that this tragedy is already approaching its denouement.
To understand why, you have to go back to the origins of the credit crunch, which lay in the giant trade and capital imbalances that have long ruled the world economy. Over the past 20 years, the globe has become divided in highly dangerous ways into surplus and deficit nations: those that produced a surplus of goods and savings, and those that borrowed the savings to buy the goods.
It’s a strange, Alice in Wonderland world that sees one of the planet’s richest economies borrowing from one of the poorest to pay for goods way beyond the reach of the people actually producing them. But that process, in effect, came to define the relationship between America and China. The resulting credit-fuelled glut in productive capacity was almost bound to end in a corrective global recession, even without the unsustainable real-estate bubble that the excess of savings also produced. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
When politicians see a problem, especially one on this scale, they feel obliged to regulate it. But so far, they’ve been unable to make headway. This is mainly because the surplus nations are jealous defenders of their essentially mercantilist economic models. Exporting to the deficit nations has served them well, and they are reluctant to change.
Ironically, one effect of the policies adopted to fight the downturn has been to reinforce the imbalances. Fiscal and monetary stimulus in the US is sucking in imports at near-record levels. The fresh dose of quantitative easing announced this week by the Federal Reserve will only turn up the heat further.
What can be done? China won’t accept the currency appreciation that might, in time, reduce the imbalances, for that would undermine the competitiveness of its export industries. In any case, it probably wouldn’t do the trick: surplus nations have a habit of maintaining competitiveness even in the face of an appreciating currency.
Unable to tackle the problem through currency reform, the US has turned instead to the idea of measures to limit the imbalances directly, through monitoring nations’ current accounts. This has already gained some traction with the G20, which has agreed to assess the proposal ahead of the meeting in Seoul. As a way of defusing hot-headed calls in the US for the imposition of import tariffs, the idea is very much to be welcomed, as a trade war would be a disaster for all concerned. China, for one, has embraced the concept with evident relief.
Unfortunately, the limits as proposed would be highly unlikely to solve the underlying problem. Similar rules have failed hopelessly to maintain fiscal discipline in the eurozone. What chance for a global equivalent on trade? With or without sanctions, the limits would be manipulated to death. And even if they weren’t, the proposed 4 per cent cap on surpluses and deficits would only marginally affect the worst offenders: for a big economy, a trade gap of 4 per cent of GDP is still a massive number, easily capable of creating unsafe flows of surplus savings.
No, globally imposed regulation, even if it could rise above lowest-common-denominator impotence, is unlikely to solve the problem, although it might possibly stop it getting significantly worse. But what would certainly fix things would be the dollar’s demise as the global reserve currency of choice.
As we now know, dollar hegemony was itself a major cause of both the imbalances and the crisis, for it allowed more or less unbounded borrowing by the US from the rest of the world, at very favourable rates. As long as the US remained far and away the world’s dominant economy, a global system based on the dollar still made some sense. But America has squandered this advantage on credit-fuelled spending; with the developing world expected to represent more than half of the global economy within five years, dollar hegemony no longer makes any sense.
The rest of the world is now openly questioning the merits of a global currency whose value is governed by America’s perceived domestic needs, while the growth that once underpinned confidence in its ability to repay its debts has never looked more fragile.
Already, there are calls for alternatives. Unwilling to wait for one, the world’s central banks are beginning to diversify their currency reserves. This, in turn, will eventually exert its own form of market discipline on the US, whose ability to soak the rest of the world by issuing ever more greenbacks will be correspondingly harmed.
These are seismic changes, of a type not seen for a generation or more. I hate to end with a cliché, but we do indeed live in interesting times.